Jane Enkin Music and Story at janeenkinmusic.com
Once again, a hard-working group of organizers and volunteers put together a great day of Jewish learning. With a great selection of presentations, each person chooses their own Limmud experience. There were text-based sessions, participatory arts experiences, performances and sessions about pressing personal and political issues, as well as a children’s program. This year out-of-town guest teachers included Torah educator Rivy Kletenik, substance abuse counsellor Carli Rothman, musicians Rock the Shtetl and long-time Winnipeggers Carol Rose and Rabbi Neal Rose. I chose to learn with local presenters.
In the first time slot on Sunday, I presented along with Susan Palmer on the theme Where Are the Women? A Look at Stories from Jewish Folk Traditions. I told folktales from Ashkenazi, Yemenite, and Iraqi Jewish traditions. After each story, susn led a lively discussion with lots of fascinating, very personal contributions from the group. We heard about the ways challah, in several families, became an important symbol of caring. Several participants affirmed the importance of individual approaches to spirituality, finding a rabbi in an Ashkenazi tale who insists on the rule-book to be oppressive, or at the very least unintentionally hurtful. We considered the roles of women and men in a family and community during childbirth. In the Yemenite story, a very traditional man feels trapped when he needs to walk through the “women’s territory” of the birthplace to get to synagogue, so the midwife picks him up and lifts him out the door, prompting the delightful theory from a participant that she became the midwife not only to the baby, but also to the father.
After the emphasis on listening and receiving personal stories in our session, I changed my plans for my second experience of the day. I skipped Rabbi Larry Lander’s teaching on the Rebbe of Kotsk and went to hear Edith Kimelman’s very personal memoir Stories of a Holocaust Survivor. Kimelman was a little girl in 1941 when she sensed that something was wrong for Jews in Ukraine, while her parents continued to reassure her, “Everything will be all right.” Since the family had made it through pogroms and persecution over the centuries, they did not realize the scale of what they were facing. Changes came quickly – one day their home was plundered; the next day she saw her Ukrainian school friends dressed in her clothes. Though the family faced many dangers, Kimelman told us of the brave helpers who hid them, fed them and transported them to safer places. Although Kimelman and some members of her family survived, she is always aware of the way her adult life has been shaped by her youth – her difficulty in feeling trust, her “overprotective” feelings about her children – “I will never know what normal is.” She told us “My mind is never at rest… it’s not sediment, it doesn’t settle down.” She is a superb storyteller; she skillfully recreated for us the experience of a young girl watching her familiar world crumble, while often clarifying events from an adult perspective. Kimelman emphasized the indelible damage of the childhood experience of war, but also left us admiring her resilience, the career and family life she made for herself, and her generosity in helping us to witness and remember with her.
Steven Hyman chose for his text-study the provocative title, If I Am So Smart, Why is My Neighbour so Foolish: When Popular Thought Challenges Jewish Values. His main topic was attitudes toward refugees, and his argument was that Torah and later Jewish sources place a strong value on tzedakah (the obligation of righteous giving), love of others and welcoming the stranger. Although in order to help us to examine the issues and Torah and Talmud teachings, Hyman guided participants to consider the arguments that can be made against accepting refugees, there was fairly clear consensus during the session that keeping Canada open to refugees is in accord with Jewish values. It was only after the presentation was over and most participants had left that I overheard two people come to Hyman to assert sweeping anti-Muslim views. Hyman and I engaged with them and they modified their statements, saying that of course they did not mean to say “all Muslims…” Small encounters like this one can make a real difference – both Hyman and I and the people we spoke with had to clarify our thoughts and find ways to express them that were not all or nothing statements.
There was a nice opportunity at lunch time (and during breaks as well) to catch up with friends and compare our experiences. Visiting Toronto musicians Allan and Ellen Rosenbluth and Jonno Lightstone of Rock the Shtetl led a beautiful nign.
Rabbi Yosef Benarroch led a session on Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai , called Toward a More Compassionate Judaism. I’ll try to summarize a few points of Benarroch’s very full teaching and discussion. Hillel and Shammai were early Torah teachers, whose disputes are recorded in the Talmud. They shared most values, but approached them differently. For example, Torah study was very important to both, but Shammai took an approach some see as “academic,” prioritizing God and right behaviour, asking the learner to come to the text . Hillel’s style might be termed “outreach,” beginning with empathy and establishing a relationship with the learner. Even questions such as “Which was created first, heaven or earth?” were approached from opposite viewpoints – Hillel’s gaze is on earth and people, drawn to practicality, flexibility and compromise, and Shammai looks to heaven for clear ideals. While showing the importance of both approaches in our lives, Rabbi Benarroch leaned toward Hillel’s approach. The rabbi told a somewhat challenging and charming midrash: When Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, God appeared to him – the model of the mitzvah of visiting the sick. Abraham performed the mitzvah of welcoming God as his guest. But when some strangers approached, Abraham ran to greet them. Abraham put God on hold while he ran to greet his new guests! The Talmud, tractate Shabbat 127a, tells us that this story teaches that receiving guests is greater than receiving the heavenly presence.
Sharon Graham introduced listeners to four fascinating people in The Canadian Jewish Story in Four Biographies. Ezekiel Hart made strides for Jews in the British Empire in the early 1800s as an elected politician. In the early part of the 20th century, Rabbi Israel Isaac Kahanovitch brought together the Jews of Western Canada, transcending differences within the community. Graham looked at the early years of Leonard Cohen, when his poetry and novels brought him to prominence. Everyone present took a bit of time for wistful nostalgia, mourning our recent loss of this music icon. Judy Feld Carr is an inspired activist who, with determination and wit, worked with individuals and governments to rescue the Jewish community of Syria. Graham showed slides of interesting photos and used a different approach for each historical figure, suiting their character and contribution to our shared heritage as Canadian Jews.
Richard Hechter’s talk was surprising in so many ways – funny, personal, visually gorgeous, and hopeful. His title was Unity Under the Night Sky: Exploring Stories of Culture, Teaching, and Human Interconnectedness from Churchill to Tel Aviv. Hechter teaches science in the education department at U of M, so it’s his job to inspire teachers. He finds his own inspiration in the Northern Lights. He has found ways to explore the narrative of science and traditional narratives from many cultures responding to this beautiful phenomenon, which we saw in his fabulous photographs. At a conference, he met a Palestinian scientist and he now has a close friendship with him and his family. Just as Hechter sees the potential for integrated learning in traditional folklore, art and science, with differing perspectives rather than confrontation, he has experienced the potential for warm relationships among people with differing perspectives.